Thursday, December 25, 2008

Guest Blog – A Christmas Dress for Ellen

Along with the Christmas decorations stored in the basement, I have a basket full of favorite Christmas books. One that I recently acquired is A Christmas Dress for Ellen. This is a charming story retold by Thomas S. Monson who is now the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The story is about the Jeppson family living in Southern Alberta in 1927. After two years of failed crops, the family is facing not only a bleak Christmas but a cold hard winter with little fuel or food to feed the family. The miracle occurs when a courageous mail carrier braves a winter storm to travel to the tiny town of Hillspring to deliver presents to the forlorn family.

It is a good Christmas story but a great deal of its appeal for me is that my father, Bob Fisher, was born and raised in Hill Spring, Alberta. In a small self-published book, Reflections at Christmas, my father told a couple of Christmas stories that tell about the perils of winter in Southern Alberta. One of the stories is similar to the one told by President Monson. In the Fisher story a neighbor comes to the rescue and battles his way through the snow to deliver the family’s Christmas package on the eve of that important day. Without his valiant efforts, the stockings of all the children would have been empty when they woke in the morning.

Another winter tale that Bob tells is about his father Peirce Fisher traveling by horse drawn sleigh in a storm that became increasingly severe. On the Blood Reservation he had to cross a gully that had only one bridge spanning it. As weariness settled in, Peirce walked more slowly with every step. Finally he gave in to the bone tiredness that he felt and leaned against his horse and fell asleep. Out of the blizzard a voice spoke to him, “Wake up, Wake up. You die.” This Indian angel who came in answer to Pierce’s prayer led him across the bridge. With his help, the horse and Grandpa Fisher made it home safely. For years afterward, Peirce looked into the face of every Blood tribe member that he saw, but he never recognized his savior from that winter night. However, he always treated each person with kindness and consideration.

I love the tales of Christmas miracles and of people’s kindness towards each other. This season leaves me with the desire to keep a bit of Christmas with me all through the year. And like my grandfather treat each person I meet with dignity and kindness. May this holiday season leave you with a touch of the season’s magic and kindness.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Guest Blog – Touching Spirit Bear

Once in awhile I am ready to take a break from mystery novels, so when this book was recommended to me, I thought I would read it. After all I have been reading all of the James D. Doss books at the local library featuring Charlie Moon who is a Ute.

If I had a young son who was struggling to read, Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen is a story that I would urge him to try. The novel is about Cole Matthews who is a 15 year old juvenile offender. Cole has always been in trouble and has always been angry. When a fellow classmate reports to the police that Cole has bragged about a break-in and robbery, Cole seeks revenge on the tattle tale. He attacks Peter and in his rage beats Peter’s head against the sidewalk. Only the interference of someone else prevents him from actually beating Peter to death.

While awaiting trial, Cole is assigned to Garvey a Tlingit tribe parole officer. It is likely that Cole with his long record of violence and larceny will be tried as an adult. Garvey intervenes and believing that the smooth talking Cole might actually be ready to change his life, recommends Cole for Circle Justice. Circle Justice is a community effort to rehabilitate offenders. The process of this system is a bit on the long side in Mikaelsen’s novel but it does give crucial background for the story. We discover that Cole has been beaten and neglected by his alcoholic father with the quiet acquiescence of his submissive drinking mother. He sees his world as a place where the only control he can have is through intimidation of others.

After months of waiting, the Circle of Justice determines that it will allow Cole to participate in their plan for healing his anger and abusiveness. He is to spend a year alone on an island just off the coast of Alaska. Shortly after arriving there, Cole sees the large white bear known as the Spirit Bear. In his anger and rage, Cole attacks the bear. Of course, the bear in defense of himself lashes out. For several days, Cole lies in the continuous rain with broken ribs and pelvis and multiple fractures in his right arm. Mosquitoes prey upon the torn flesh in his chest and rodents and seagulls come to participate in the feast. Broken and fragile, Cole struggles to remain alive despite his injuries.

The attack by the Spirit Bear happens early in the novel. The story is about Cole’s gradual acceptance of responsibility for his behavior and the slow process of healing and finding hope. Mikaelsen is able to make the angry and defiant Cole very real without resorting to using the kind of language that as a reader I have no doubt that he used. There is a sense of hope to the story despite the fact that the author makes it very clear that cycles of abuse are often passed from one generation to another. The abuse affects all of the community and there are no simple answers for healing violent and broken souls or healing the neighborhoods they have affected. Definitely a worthwhile read for the young reader and for adults.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Guest Blog - Death's Half Acre

Since I started reading the Hardy Boys and the Dana Girls mysteries when I was about 11 years old, I have been hooked on the genre. Christmas stories of any type always appeal to me. The first Margaret Maron novel that I read was a Sigrid Harald story, Corpus Christmas. Harald is a New York City police officer. I liked Harald and tried to find more novels about her. However, when I first saw Bootlegger’s Daughter about Deborah Knott living in North Carolina, I was not really interested. An attorney in a small town in North Carolina. Hmmm. I am both a Westerner and a Northerner. Was I interested in reading about someone in the rural south? Finally I gave in and read the first of many Deborah Knott mysteries.

I just finished Death’s Half Acre, the latest of Maron’s books about Judge Knott. As I read it I realized that it might be difficult to read this book without some background on the Knott family despite the fact that a family tree has been included at the front of this book; however, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the latest antics in the lives of Deborah’s huge extended family. I noticed that on her website Maron expresses concern about new readers picking up a book in the middle of the series. Maron’s books are always populated with interesting characters. This book is no exception. In fact at times, I wondered whether I could keep up with all of the characters in the novel. Would I recognize the murderer when I got to the last chapter? Maron played the game entirely straight. I had all of the information in front of me and I still did not know who it was who shot Deborah in the arm in one of the final chapters. When all was disclosed, all I could say was, “Why didn’t I see this?”

Needless to say, I am looking forward to reading Maron's new book Sand Shark in 2009.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Guest Blog - Jon Scieszka

As a grandmother, I am interested in children’s books. However, there are so many books out there that it is hard to know what would be an appropriate and enjoyable book for my grandchildren. I am always open to recommendations. When I heard about Jon Scieszka on NPR, I decided that I would check him out. I visited the library and literally checked out three books by Scieszka to read. I spent a happy hour or so reading children’s books but am still undecided about whether to invest in some of his books for my children’s children. I am not an expert on what appeals to children or what is appropriate.

Jon Scieszka was recently named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress. Be sure to click on the author’s name above and read more about this interesting man. There is an interview with Martha Stewart on his site as well. He has actually been publishing books for the last twenty years but this is the first time that I have read any of his work. By the way, twenty years ago I had a preschooler.

His first book was The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! The story is narrated by A. Wolf who claims that he was framed for the accidental deaths of two of the little pigs. It is a fun revisit to the age old morality tale of the need to be a hard worker who builds a brick house instead of going for the easy job with lots of time to play. Incidentally, although I chuckled, my sympathy for Alexander T. Wolf never did overshadow my concern for the pigs. There is also a 10th Anniversary Update available with a further message from the incarcerated A. Wolf. The illustrations by Lane Smith are colorful and imaginative.

The other picture book I checked out is The Frog Prince Continued. As in so many relationships, the Frog Prince and the Princess are not living happily ever after but are struggling to get along. He gets on her nerves a lot, in fact a whole lot. Finally the Frog Prince decides that he is going to find a witch who can turn him back into a frog. He encounters several fairy tale witches along the way. Most of them are much too scary for the Frog Prince or a little reader to linger with for long. I really liked the paintings of Steve Johnson and I am sure that my granddaughters would love the prince's encounters with familiar fairy tales. And possibly they will enjoy the surprise ending more than I did. I was definitely taken by surprise. Apparently I have little or no imagination.

Jon Scieszka has plenty of imagination. He has a whole series of books for young readers about the Time Warp Trio. Three boys from Brooklyn travel back in time to visit many historical events and sites. The book I chose to read is called Da Wild Da Crazy Da Vinci. Fred, Sam and Jo with the aid of their magical book travel back to visit Leonardo when he was employed by Borgia to create military machinery. He is working on a tank when they come upon him. They encounter not only Borgia but also Machiavelli and a Captain Nassti. This series undoubtedly serves as a doorway into a world of history that children might otherwise ignore. I have just to check out whether there was really anyone named Nassti in Leonardo’s world. By the way, my local library had a great many of these books available if your reader should get interested in them.

Scieszka has a new series that is out about Trucktown. Smash Crash has been on the New York Times best seller list for several months. It was not available at the library so I might have to go browse at Barnes and Noble. It is for preschoolers and is based on four year olds of Scieszka’s acquaintance. Scieszka’s message to parents and children is to open your mind about the many options for reading. He says that television and the computer all play a role in helping children acquire the skill needed to read. If you click on some of the highlighted words you will discover some of his computer pages for books including And parents, set a good example. Read yourselves. Especially fathers. Have a home with books of all sorts “just lying around.”

Happy reading and good luck on your book selections this holiday season.